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Transmission lines stay for now

County commissioners effectively delayed a decision on moving the lines to make way for homes.

Published February 4, 2004

TARPON SPRINGS - For 15 years, Richard Martin has enjoyed watching cows graze and wild birds flock on the pasture behind his home on Mary Lane.

Martin and his neighbors in Sail Harbor didn't think much about the high-voltage transmission lines that crossed that pasture. They were all but out of sight, mostly hidden by trees.

Now a developer wants to put 24 homes on the 9-acre pasture and move the 115-kilovolt transmission lines to a corridor directly south of the homes on Mary Lane.

That would give the Leisure Lake Partnership of Clearwater a better site to work with.

Martin and his neighbors say it would also ruin their neighborhood.

"If they make this move, I'm not going to have a dream house any longer," said Martin, 75, a retired vice president of a Massachusetts knife-making company. "Emotionally speaking, it would be devastating."

On Tuesday, the Pinellas County Commission voted 5-2 to send the developer's request back through the review process. That effectively postponed the commission's decision until March 30. Commissioners John Morroni and Bob Stewart voted against sending it back, but other commissioners were troubled by an official notice sent out to inform neighbors of the request.

Attorney Joel Tew, representing the landowner, said the commission's decision to delay the decision was not fair.

"The notice says what every land use notice has said for a decade," Tew said. "There is nothing unique about this."

But a lawyer hired by homeowners in Sail Harbor, a neighborhood where each of the 51 lots covers at least an acre, said the notices were vague and talked only in general terms about proposed land use changes.

"It doesn't say relocation," said Ed Armstrong, a Clearwater attorney who represents the Sail Harbor Homeowners Association. "It doesn't say transmission lines. A layman reading that just kind of shrugs their shoulders."

Commissioners were not alone in questioning how neighbors learned of the project.

When the proposal previously went before the Pinellas Planning Council, which includes local officials from throughout the county, no one from Sail Harbor showed up to discuss it. Oldsmar Mayor Jerry Beverland suspected residents simply didn't know what was at stake.

"The city does the same thing," Beverland said. "We give notices. They're so vague, nobody knows exactly what they're about."

Beverland pushed for county staff to go out to the neighborhood and tell residents what could happen.

So, in recent weeks, the county did just that, sending its staff to Sail Harbor to knock on doors and talk with residents about what was happening. Many were surprised by the proposal and turned out for Tuesday's public hearing with the County Commission.

The county was setting a precedent by going out and knocking on doors, Tew said.

"They are changing the rules midstream and applying it to a pending application," Tew said. "You can't change the rules in the middle of the game."

Armstrong said that's exactly what he would argue if he were in Tew's position. But he added when it comes to making changes to the county's comprehensive land use plan, commissioners have the leeway to seek more public input.

Commissioner Barbara Sheen Todd suggested the developer bury the power lines. After the meeting, Tew said that would cost too much.

Even if the county does approve the move, the developer would still need to get Progress Energy's permission to move the lines.

The utility is aware of the issue, but so far no one has applied to do that, Progress Energy spokesman Aaron Perlut said.

If the developer does apply to move the lines, then Progress Energy would do a feasibility study. The utility would consider, among other things, the cost of the move and the impact on the surrounding community. The developer would pay to move the lines, he said.

Burying the lines could be an option but a very expensive one. Putting transmission lines underground can cost more than $5-million per mile, Perlut said.

- Staff writer Candace Rondeaux contributed to this report.

[Last modified February 4, 2004, 01:31:46]

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